VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action isn’t your typical visual novel game. SUKEBAN Games, the developer, makes this clear via the ‘Cyberpunk Bartender Action’ tagline! This tagline is not only in your face on the title screen but also pretty much every screen of the game as part of the bartending operating system.
VA-11 HALL-A is certainly very cyberpunk and most definitely centres on bartending, but calling it an ‘action’ game it most certainly is not. Even from the offset, the developers tell you to sit back, relax and enjoy the game with a drink in hand. With that in mind, that’s exactly what I did, and the laidback pace of VA-11 HALL-A was the perfect antidote after completing Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, which nearly destroyed me both physically but mentally!
For me, a visual novel has to have either a gripping story that sucks me in or a cast of really entertaining characters. Thankfully, VA-11 HALL-A has a wide range of vibrant and often quirky cast, which fit the cyberpunk trope really well, which range from augmented assassins to a talking dog clad out in a Hawaiian shirt and sunglasses. It’s bonkers but it works and there are easily a few interesting characters within the cast that will appeal to all.
VA-11 HALL-A is set just over 50 years into the future, in the year 207X. You are a bartender called Jill working at bar ‘VA-11 HALL-A’ in Glitch City where the game’s website so adeptly puts, is a city where “corporations reign supreme, all human life is infected with nanomachines designed to oppress them, and the terrifying White Knights ensure that everyone obeys the laws”. Sounds pretty glum and Jill is hardened to the ways of the world, but on interacting with the patrons which frequent the bar and your work colleagues, you get to witness a softer, more caring side to Jill, with plenty of banter. It’s her story that develops the strongest, touching on regret and is totally relatable.
As previously mentioned, the ample cast of ‘colourful’ customers that visit the bar each has their own stories to tell and provide some terrific humour as well as further insight into life within Glitch City. A personal favourite character of mine is Dorothy the Liliam (an android) sex worker and close friend of Jill’s. She’s easily the bubbliest character of them all and takes great pride in her work.
In keeping with a lot of visual novels which feature implied under-aged or teenage girls in a sexually suggestive manner, Dorothy takes on this role as she is modelled on a girl aged around 13-15. However, this is countered by her having the mental age of a woman in her 20’s. She even goes on to state that she has the ability to upgrade her model of Liliam but would prefer not to, as she is fully aware that she gets more work due to her looking so young and innocent. She often has some amusing sexual tales to tell but also some pretty depressing ones too, such as, she has a client who asks for her once a year to play the role of his daughter after his own daughter passed away.
Another much-loved character of mine is Jill’s boss, Dana. As the owner of the bar, she’s hard-edged and not one to be messed with. There’s great a running mystery throughout the game as to how she attained her prosthetic arm, coupled with an interesting history of incredibly weird and wonderful jobs that she’s had. It’s always good to see such strong-minded and powerful female characters within the visual novel genre, as the genre does tend to get a lot of slack for having weak, often stereotypical women, only seen as sex objects. That’s not saying that VA-11 HALL-A gets its writing right all the time, as there is an abundance of chat relating to the size of the female casts breasts, which isn’t always needed.
With such a diverse cast of characters, there is, of course, a few dud ones that I felt where not needed. Most noticeably is Ingram, who is generally ill-tempered, annoying and doesn’t add anything worthwhile to the game’s story or character developments. Also, the character Virgilio didn’t do much for me either but at least he offers some cryptic drink orders for you to have to decipher. Disappointingly, the game’s storytelling is incredibly linear as there are no conversation branches and only by serving the characters correct or incorrect drinks do you get any differing scenarios.
Another slight niggle of mine is that the world-building of Glitch City is only through the character interactions and the message board and news feed apps on your phone (which you can view at home after your shift) and therefore I felt separated from this wider world that sounds so intriguing. It would have been great to be able to discover more of the city somehow, and unfortunately, we won’t learn more in the game’s sequel – N1RV ANN-A – which is instead set on an artificial island paradise called Saint Alicia.
Story and characters aside, the ‘action’ of the game comes in the means of creating and serving drinks to the customers. The concept works well and is entirely unique to any game I’ve played previously. You have 5 ingredients to choose from to mix to make a drink: Adelhyde (a sweet flavour), Bronson Extract (a bold taste), Powdered Delta (a former rat poison), Flanergide (a spicy kick) and Karmotrine (makes a drink alcoholic). There are two other additions to the mixing process where you can add ice to make the drink ‘on the rocks’ or you can ‘age’ the drink. Finally, the drink can be mixed or blended and if they ask for a ‘big’ version of the drink it literally means double the amount of each ingredient.
There’s choice a-plenty for drinks on offer (29 in total) ranging from a Gut Punch which is a bitter drink, to the sour Mercuryblast. Often the characters will ask specifically for the drink they want, so it’s easy to go to the A-Z of the recipe book and find what ingredients need to be mixed. Alternatively, if they are feeling down and depressed they might ask for a ‘sweet’ drink to liven them up, so again, resorting to the menu you can search for drinks depending on their type or flavour.
If you’re expecting any challenge to the mixing of drinks you will be sadly disappointed. There’s no time limit either and if you mess up you can quickly reset and try again with no penalties. The only test comes when characters are more cryptic as to what they want to drink or instead you having to remember what drink is their favourite. The ease of it all makes it fun but it does get repetitive very fast. It’s a shame that the system doesn’t evolve as the game progresses or there were actual consequences for messing up, such as docking your pay a little.
Aside from mixing drinks and conversing with the patrons, there are a few cutaway moments of storytelling through parties (one of which involves playing truth or dare) or having a character join you for your break in the alleyway. At the end of your shift, you can catch up on the latest news at home and go shopping to clutter up your apartment with fairly useless junk. You have to be conscious not to spend too much money though as you have bills to pay. Not paying your electricity bills makes you lose focus the next day at work and will be thinking about the missed payment instead of what the customer ordered.
Usually, you have a few days notice to know you have a bill coming up to pay, though I had spent most of my money before the final rent bill was announced, this meant that I didn’t have enough days at work to save up the cash to pay it off. The consequence of this was that I automatically got the bad ending which was a tad annoying.
Aesthetically, VA-11 HALL-A is a pixelated treat. It’s bold and colourful and takes inspiration from old PC-98 games (of which you can purchase the system in-game and play a side-scrolling shooter mini-game on it), which perfectly suits the futuristic and retro feel. There are clear Japanese influences behind the game, not only with its anime-style characters but you can definitely see aspects of Ghost in the Shell and Bubblegum Crisis within its world and characters. Along with the visuals, the game’s soundtrack is suitably impressive.
Of course, being set in a bar there happens to be a jukebox where you can pick a playlist of tracks to be played in the background. These tunes are really catchy and have strong vapourware influences.
For trophy hunters, they will be pleased to learn that VA-11 HALL-A has a fairly easy obtainable Platinum trophy. To do so, you will need to play through the game more than once to ensure you have enough money to purchase everything on one playthrough while focusing on paying the bills on another. You can also do a little bit of save file reloading on day 17 to ensure you can view all 7 endings, some of them are specifically locked to certain characters and are only achieved by serving customers the correct drinks throughout the game. This isn’t necessarily as clear cut as you think, so following a guide may come in handy.
Though the game took me around 8 hours to complete, you can easily skip through the conversations on a second playthrough to collect any missing trophies. Also, both the PS4 and PS Vita have separate trophy lists so you can double dip on a Platinum trophy if you so wish to do so.
For visual novel fans, I can easily recommend playing VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action. The game is incredibly well written, with a good mix of humour and deep thematic themes. There is an abundance of charming characters that you will genuinely grow to care for and look forward to them returning to visit the bar and find out more about their stories. Even if you have never played a game in this genre before, VA-11 HALL-A is a perfect starting point if you’re just looking for a game to sit down and unwind to.
It’s like picking up a good sci-fi book that will suck you in, and not let you go until you have finished it in one sitting.
VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action£11.99
- - Unique approach to the visual novel genre
- - Wide cast of quirky characters
- - Interesting cyberpunk setting
- - Pixelated graphics and the games' soundtrack are very retro and rather excellent
- - Some 'dud' characters
- - Actual bartending gets a little repetitive
- - Linear storytelling with no dialogue choices